With Crocodile Dundee, Down Under's Paul Hogan Is Bringing Gator Aid to American Movie Fans

updated 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/20/1986 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Paul Hogan doesn't know what to make of the vast success of [Crocodile Dundee], his first movie, except perhaps to say that in it he has told a gentle story about a man who poaches crocodiles for a living and doesn't take much seriously—least of all himself. "He's self-mocking," Hogan says of the title character, a legend of the Outback.

A former bridge-scaffolding rigger from Down Under who entered show business 14 years ago on a dare, Hogan is also earning a crock full of money with his tongue-in-cheeky style. Made for a mere $5.6 million, Dundee has not only become the largest grossing movie in the history of Hogan's native Australia, but has earned $19.5 million in the first 10 days of its U.S. run. As he sits in an L.A. hotel suite, someone points out that his movie took in $933,000 on a single weekday in its American debut—enough to make even Stallone salivate. Hogan, who at 45 looks like a friendly strip of cracked leather, chews over this amazing news, then deadpans, "Is that good?"

If he seems unimpressed with his good fortune, it may be the sane reaction of a man who knows he is lucky to be alive. Several months ago, alone in a Sydney gym, Hogan loaded about 250 pounds on a Nautilus machine ("purely out of boredom, just to see if I could press it") and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. "For the first 24 hours, nobody knew if I was going to come out of it," he says, "until the bleeding stopped. If it continues, you die. If I'd had a bad doctor who'd given me a handful of aspros [aspirin], I'd have been dead."

Hooked up to an IV, feeling his own delicate mortality, Hogan concluded that he had led a rare life—one without regrets. "No lying there thinking I've been cheated." Now fully recovered, assured by the doctors that his injury is unlikely to recur, Hogan endures interviewers and photographers in his laid-back manner. "How can you smile genuinely 57 times in a row?" he asks.

If Australia's national folk hero has rough edges, he comes by them naturally. Hogan was born in the bush, in a place called Lightning Ridge, and was raised in Sydney. He left high school at 14 and tried to make a living in various ways, including boxing. He lost only three times in 32 fights, but that third clobbering persuaded him to quit. "I wasn't much good."

By 18, he was married, and by 22, he and his wife, Noelene, were sharing a dingy row house near Sydney's railroad tracks with the first three of their five children. Hogan was drifting from one blue-collar job to the next and from one pub to another until his quick tongue got him out of the rut. Challenged by fellow workers to appear on New Faces, a nastier version of The Gong Show, Hogan billed himself as a blindfolded, knife-throwing tap dancer. Once he hit the stage, however, he tossed away his knives and delivered devastating parodies of the usually malicious judges. Rather than trashing him, the astounded judges invited him back. And back. And back.

What made him popular, says Hogan, is a fearless insubordinate wit. "We're a very egalitarian society," he explains. "If I meet the Prime Minister, I always call him mate. There are no 'Sirs,' no 'Misters.' If you want to play snobs or do airs and graces, you join a very exclusive club in Melbourne."

By 1973 he was able to quit his bridge job in Sydney harbor. Over the next nine years he made 60 TV specials, all featuring his low-key, send-up comedy. British subjects became aware of Hogan during a royal performance, when he invited the Queen to his place for dinner, then proceeded to explain the bus route to her. Americans discovered him in early 1984 when his commercials for the Australian Tourist Commission made such expressions as "G'day" and "Slip another shrimp on the barbie" part of our vernacular.

Two years ago Hogan visited New York City for the first time, and the idea for Crocodile Dundee was born. Returning home, he blocked out the plot and story line of a man from the bush who is thrust into the jungle of Manhattan. Hogan's intention, he says, was to make a film with "a different kind of hero. He's not drinking up steroids or amputating heads with a machine gun, but he's still a hero."

Having proved his point, Hogan is heading back for a holiday with his wife and children (Brett, 25, Clay, 24, Todd, 22, Loren, 17, Scott, 12). The Hogans live in a suburban Sydney home, complete with pool, tennis court and landscaped gardens. "I'm totally spoiled," Hogan says without guile. "Everything works out for me. I have a wonderful life. I don't want to make people miserable when they read about it—'You rotten cow!'—but I've virtually got nothing to complain about. I had my turn complaining."

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